Imagine taking your five children to another country all by yourself and then getting very sick and having to be hospitalized. Pretty terrible situation, right? So how would you cope? Would you leave them in the care of a random Englishman staying at your hotel? Because that’s what the mother of the Grey children did. Seem like a bad idea? It was, but it makes a good book.
According to the preface to the 1993 edition, Rumer Godden based The Greengage Summer on something that happened to her when she was 15 years old. Her mother got sick when they were in France and left Rumer and her sisters with an Englishwoman who was staying a their hotel with her young daughter and husband, but this Englishwoman was not exactly what she seemed. Godden raises the stakes in this story by making the children younger and giving them a single man for a caretaker.
Thirteen-year-old Cecil Grey tells the story. Cecil is the second of five children: Joss is her elder sister, and Hester, Willmouse, and Vicky are the younger siblings. In their English village, the family is seen as eccentric. Their father is away on expeditions most of the time, and so they live in the village of Southstone with their mother’s brother, William. They don’t fit in with William or with their neighbors:
I think now that the discontent was because we were never quite comfortable in Southstone and the rudeness came from the discontent; it was as if a pattern mould were being pressed down on us into which we could not fit. For one thing we were much poorer than the people we knew, poor to be Uncle William’s sister, nieces and nephew; and we had this curiously absent father while other girls’ fathers went to offices and caught trains and belonged to the Sussex Club. Mother too was not like other mothers, nor like a grown-up at all; she patently preferred being with Vicky or Willmouse or any of us than playing bridge, or organising bazaars, or having coffee or luncheon or tea with the select Southstone ladies. When any of us—except Hester, who was at home anywhere—went out to tea in one of the big red-brick houses, with lawns and laurel bushes and meticulously driveways, we felt interlopers. We were odd, belonging and not belonging, and odd is an uncomfortable thing to be; we did not want to belong but were humiliated that we did not. I know now it was not good for us to live in Southstone. We should not have been as odd somewhere bigger, in London perhaps.
It is Cecil and Joss’s rude complaints about their situation that led to the trip to France. Their exasperated mother decided to take them to the battlefields of France:
“So that you can see what other people have given … given for your sakes; and what other people will do in sacrifice. Perhaps that will make you ashamed and make you think. And Saint Joan … Saint Joan at the stake. We shall stop at wherever it was and see where she was burned.”
And so the children end up in France with their mother in the hospital. Their mother enlists the strange Englishman named Eliot to look after them because she doesn’t want to hear William telling her he knew all along her plan was no good.
The funny thing is, as ill-conceived as their mother’s actions obviously are, the story doesn’t condemn her. She’s in a difficult situation, too. But Eliot is no fit guardian, for reasons Cecil only hints at to start. The narrative in the early chapters jumps around in time, but Cecil’s dark hints keep the interest high.
It becomes evident early on that part of the problem is Joss’s burgeoning womanhood—or, rather, other people’s reactions to her newfound beauty. Men look at her in admiration and lust, and women look at her with jealousy and suspicion. Godden very wisely makes it clear that Joss’s growth in itself is just a thing that happens, that she is in no way to blame for what others think. Any irresponsible actions she takes that make matters worse are her ways of coping, trying to figure out how to live in this new self. Her attention to Joss’s predicament and Cecil’s mixed feelings about this new Joss is consistently respectful and honest.
Eliot is a poor guardian not just because he is too entranced by Joss’s beauty to remember that she is still a child and in his care. He has plenty of other secrets that make him untrustworthy. But who Eliot is interests me less than how the children react to him. Each one seems to see him a little differently. Ten-year-old Hester, noting his frequent apologies, offered my favorite insight: “Eliot always said, ‘I’m sorry. I had to do that.’ If you are all right really, really all right, you don’t do things that are sorry.”
I first experienced Rumer Godden’s writing in the children’s book The Story of Holly and Ivy, which is embued with precise detail and a sense of longing that entranced me as a child. It was only in that last few years that I learned she’d written quite a lot of adult novels. Jenny at Reading the End in particular put her back on my radar. Christy and Leslie and I decided to read and discuss this together this month, and I look forward to reading more. I already have In This House of Brede, thanks to Jenny, and I loved the film of Black Narcissus, so I’ll be looking for that one. I welcome more recommendations!